Hagel passes committee on party-line vote

Former Sen. Chuck Hagel’s nomination for Secretary of Defense was approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee this afternoon, setting the stage for a showdown over a proposed filibuster by Senate Republicans.

A planned walkout by committee Republicans did not materialize, and the 14-11 vote broke along party lines, with 13 Democrats and one Independent voting for Hagel while 11 Republicans voted against. Sen. David Vitter (R-Louisiana) spoke against the nomination but was absent during the vote. [Full tally of voting at the end of this article.]

The nomination is expected to go to the full Senate later this week. While Republicans have proposed filibustering a Senate floor vote, the GOP is dealing with a rift in its own ranks over the wisdom and feasibility of a filibuster. On the eve of the committee vote, influential Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) announced his opposition to the procedural maneuver and urged his fellow Republicans to let Hagel’s nomination come to a full Senate vote.

“I’m encouraging my colleagues if they want to vote against Sen. Hagel that’s one thing and that’s a principled stand,” McCain told a press gathering Monday. “We do not want to filibuster. We have not filibustered a Cabinet appointee in the past and I believe that we should move forward with his nomination, bring it to the floor and vote up or down.” McCain also reportedly met privately with Republican members of the Armed Services Committee Monday in an effort to persuade them not to filibuster Hagel’s nomination, out of concern for the precedent such a move would set and the possibility that it could be used in the future against a Republican president whose party would have a majority in the Senate. The Senate last month tightened some of its filibuster rules but left in place a 60-vote threshold to bring cloture.

Hagel is expected to have 57 votes, including all the Democrats and the Senate’s two independents, along with two Republicans, Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran and Nebraska Sen. Mike Johanns. Associated Press reports that four other Republicans will join McCain in voting against Hagel but also opposing the filibuster, making it likely he could be confirmed by the end of this week.

Committee Republicans had also raised the possibility of staging a walkout during the committee vote. While this did not happen, GOP committee members scorched Hagel in pre-vote comments.

Defeating Hagel’s nomination in the committee had not been a strong possibility as the Democrats have 14 votes (including Maine Independent Angus King) compared with the Republicans’ 12.

Hagel, a former Republican Senator and twice-wounded Vietnam veteran, seemed an unlikely figure to become the Obama presidency’s most controversial cabinet appointment. But his opposition to the Iraq war “surge” alienated former GOP colleagues, including McCain. Hagel ran into further grief over comments he has made in the past referring to a “Jewish lobby” that intimidates U.S. politicians. (Hagel has since retracted these comments.) Senate Republicans have also criticized Hagel for his reluctance to take military action against Iran and evident skepticism about Iran’s nuclear weapons program. In a 2011 interview with the Financial Times, Hagel described the Pentagon budget as “bloated,” continuing, “I think the Pentagon needs to be pared down.”

The Defense nominee got into deeper trouble with his testimony last month before the Armed Services Committee. In a grueling eight-hour session, Hagel appeared hesitant, slow to respond and occasionally self-contradictory. At one point, Hagel had to revise an earlier statement he had made in favor of a policy of containment of Iran. Containment is not part of the U.S. Iran policy. Challenged by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) to name a Senator who had been intimidated by the Jewish lobby, Hagel seemed to back down, and the emotional grilling by many Republicans apparently left him fazed.

Hagel’s nomination took another hit earlier this week when Fox News obtained records of speeches he gave in 2008 to the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) and Georgetown University???s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. ADC has a history of controversial statements on Israel, although the content of Hagel’s two speeches (which he failed to disclose in Senate confirmation forms) has not surfaced.

Hagel’s nomination process has drawn criticism from the right and the left, and even Obama’s former spokesman Robert Gibbs called him “unprepared and unimpressive” in his confirmation hearing. But Democrats appear to be holding the line in favor of approving his nomination, leaving procedural maneuvers as the only real option for blocking his appointment.

Despite the objection to a filibuster by McCain (a Vietnam veteran who nevertheless voted against Hagel), holding up a vote remains an outside possibility. On Sunday Graham said he plans to block both Hagel and CIA director nominee John Brennan over the administration???s reluctance to discuss last September???s lethal attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. ???No confirmation without information,??? Graham announced. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) yesterday told Politico he plans to hold up the vote.

Prior to today’s vote, committee members took turns damning and praising Hagel, along party lines. Inhofe said none of his concerns about Hagel had been addressed and noted that Iranian leaders have expressed contentment with his nomination.

McCain said Hagel had complied with the committee’s requirements but opposed moving forward with the nomination. McCain called Hagel’s performance before the committee “the worst performance that I have ever seen by any nominee.”

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-New Hampshire) criticized Hagel’s back-and-forth statements on containment and other issues, and noted that Hagel had opposed Iran sanctions several times during his Senate career.

Sen Deb Fischer (R-Nebraska) said Hagel’s testimony “did nothing” to answer the committee’s questions on his past performance and statements. “I do not believe he will chart the right course for this country,” Fischer said, adding that Hagel’s positions are “far to the left of President Obama.”

Graham said Hagel’s record paints “an unusually disturbing picture,” adding that Hagel is “in a league of his own.” He urged the Senate to continuing probing the “complete breakdown of leadership on Benghazi.”

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) praised Hagel’s “experience and character” and urged “deference” to the president’s authority to select a cabinet. He noted that Hagel would be the first former enlisted soldier to serve as defense secretary. Sen. Jack Reed (D-Rhode Island) noted that the country is facing budget issues and security issues (including today’s announcement by North Korea that it had conducted another nuclear test) and cannot face a delay in appointing a new defense secretary. King, the Maine Independent, also cited Hagel’s experience as an enlisted soldier.

One controversy erupted when Sen. David Vitter (R-Louisiana) claimed to have discovered additional Hagel speeches (beyond the two released by Fox) and requested more time before taking a vote. Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin (D-Michigan) shot that idea down, saying Vitter had no evidence that Hagel had intentionally withheld the speeches. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) raised the question of whether Hagel had received compensation from foreign governments for speeches he has given. Levin accused Cruz of “unilaterally changing the rules” for a single nominee.

The Armed Services Committee vote tally follows:

Chairman Levin, Carl (D-Michigan) Aye
Reed, Jack (D-Rhode Island) Aye
Nelson, Bill (D-Florida) Aye
McCaskill, Claire (D-Missouri) Aye
Udall, Mark (D-Colorado) Aye
Hagan, Kay R. (D-North Carolina) Aye
Manchin, Joe (D-West Virginia) Aye
Shaheen, Jeanne (D-New Hampshire) Aye
Gillibrand, Kirsten E. (D-New York) Aye
Blumenthal, Richard (D-Connecticut) Aye
Donnelly, Joe (D-Indiana) Aye
Hirono, Mazie K. (D-Hawaii) Aye
Kaine, Tim (D-Virginia) Aye
King, Angus S. (I-Maine) Aye

Ranking Member Inhofe, James M. (R-Oklahoma) No
McCain, John (R-Arizona) No
Sessions, Jeff (R-Alabama) No
Chambliss, Saxby (R-Georgia) No
Wicker, Roger F. (R-Mississippi) No
Ayotte, Kelly (R-New Hampshire) No
Fischer, Deb (R-Nebraska) No
Graham, Lindsey (R-South Carolina) No
Vitter, David (R-Louisiana) No show
Blunt, Roy (R-Missouri) No
Lee, Mike (R-Utah) No
Cruz, Ted (R-Texas) N0